By Liam Mannix
The Australian government spent almost $10 million on 500,000 antibody tests that have been found to be inaccurate at testing for COVID-19.
The federal government confirmed on Thursday it had spent $9.9 million buying 500,000 OnSite antibody tests from MD Solutions, an Australian distributor. It said the tests could still be used in conjunction with further laboratory tests.
The Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity ran lab tests on the antibody test kits and found they were far less accurate than claimed, and were not sensitive enough to diagnose an acute COVID-19 case.
Earlier, the government received separate official advice saying the tests could not be used at all in Australia.
In March the government announced it had bought the tests and would roll them out to GPs and hospitals within days. They never arrived at clinics.
As late as last Thursday Health Minister Greg Hunt said they were still undergoing analysis.
He told media there was no chance the antibody kits the government had bought would hit the same problems encountered by the UK government – which discovered $US20 million ($30.9 million) of kits it had purchased from China did not work.
“That’s because we’ve been very cautious and took a preliminary sample – we wanted to make sure that we had the option if the science stacked up,” Mr Hunt said at the time.
The OnSite tests were cleared by Australia’s medical regulator on the basis of data the company supplied. No independent tests were conducted before they were approved.
The OnSite test claimed to pick up 96.8 per cent of people with COVID-19 antibodies.
However, independent testing at the Doherty Institute later found the number was just 56.9 per cent, although it rose to 84.8 per cent for people tested 20 days after the onset of symptoms.
In an emailed statement, the Health Department defended its decision to buy the tests before independent testing had been conducted on their efficacy. The department said the tests could still be used for population-level surveillance.
“These tests have been demonstrated to be sufficiently accurate that a positive result in a patient approximately two weeks after symptoms have started could be presumed to be positive for COVID-19. This could then be confirmed by laboratory testing,” the statement says.
“These tests have not been purchased for the purpose of, and should not be used to, diagnose acute infection of COVID‑19, as antibodies to the SARS-CoV-2 can take up to two weeks or more to become detectable after infection.”
“When you look at all the advice the government has been given since, clearly it was the wrong call. The World Health Organisation, the Royal College of Pathologists of Australasia, Western Australia and South Australia, they have all made the call on this and said these tests cannot and should not be used for diagnosis.”
The contract is the government’s second bungled purchase of antibody testing. It also entered into a contract – later cancelled – to buy 500,000 antibody tests from an Australian distributor of vaginal rejuvenation and erectile dysfunction machines, The Guardian has reported.
Those tests were manufactured by Wondfo Biotech. The Chinese biotech company also supplied tests to the UK government, which have since become embroiled in scandal.